U.S. Senate Debate Leaves Some Wanting, Others Deciding

The nationally televised debate showcased USF and the Tampa region as important in this year’s political arena.


Students watch the CNN debate from the Marshall Student Center. Photo: Aimee Blodgett/USF News


By Vickie Chachere

USF.edu News Manager


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 24, 2010) – U.S. Senate candidates Charlie Crist, Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek brought some heated political conversation, a little star power and the political attention of the nation to USF Sunday as they made a last-ditch effort to sway undecided voters.


The hour-long morning debate drew several hundred students and visitors to campus to hear the candidates in a rare three-way Senate contest draw distinctions between their stances on issues and their political records.


The debate – sponsored by CNN, the St. Petersburg Times, the University of South Florida and USF Student Government – was the first of a two-day series that brings Florida gubernatorial candidates Alex Sink and Rick Scott to campus Monday.


Viewers looking for a lively conversation were not disappointed, but many in the USF audience of students and faculty said they were left wanting more specific answers on issues of the day.


“It’s late in the game and they are all swinging for the fences,” said USF Distinguished Professor of Political Science Susan MacManus, the nation’s foremost expert on politics in Florida, “They don’t have much time to hit a homerun.”


The candidates covered predictable terrain on the economy, the federal stimulus, tax cuts and each others’ political records. Democrat Meek, Republican Rubio and Crist, the Florida governor whose surprising decision to run as an Independent has brought great drama to the race, likely only assured already-decided voters in their choice, MacManus said.


For USF, though, having the debates on campus provided students with a rare look inside the political process. Four USF students - Student Government President Cesar Hernandez, former Oracle Editor Kelli Polson, Student Government director of government affairs Frank Hernandez and College Republicans club president Willie Wright – were selected to ask the candidates about immigration reform, higher education funding and leadership at the end of the debate. To read a blog and a full transcript of the debate, click here.


Hernandez, the son of immigrants who benefited from a Reagan Administration amnesty program, challenged the candidates on their support for the Dream Act, which helps young people brought by their parents to the U.S. illegally work toward citizenship. He said appreciated the candidates were specific in their responses, and it helped him as an undecided voter to narrow his choices between Rubio and Crist.


“That’s what people are looking for, they want people on point,” Hernandez said.


But other students and faculty members were left wanting for more.


Tommy Fraine, a senior economics major, said the candidates didn’t distinguish themselves enough, demonstrating why so many voters are looking for alternatives in third-party candidates this year or tuning out the political process all together.


Steve Klasko, Senior Vice President for USF Health and Dean of the College of Medicine, lamented that health care – a major issue for Florida and a hot-button debate point nationwide – was completely absent from the conversation.


The big win of the day was clearly for Tampa – and USF – cementing its position as a key political battleground. MacManus noted that it was no coincidence that CNN picked Tampa, known as a volatile “swing” area politically and a big media market to stage their fifth debate just days before the Nov. 2 election.


And, USF students came out winners too, Hernandez said.


“The purpose of this was to serve as a catalyst to inspire USF students who too can run for U.S. Senate or for the governor’s office,” he said.


 (In the video below, CNN's Candy Crowley talks about the debate and USF.)